Competitive advantage with a human dimension: From lifelong learning to lifelong employability

As AI-enabled automation advances, organizations should embrace “lifelong employability,” which stretches traditional notions of learning and development and can inspire workers to adapt, more routinely, to the evolving economy.

As robots and algorithms continue to become more central to the workplace, workers and employers face the enormous task of figuring out how to cope. No longer is automation a thing of the future: the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) estimates that half of today’s work activities coordinated by humans could be automated with present-day technology.

If recent experience is any indicator, few organizations or individuals are prepared for such a transition. Already, there’s a significant gap, brought on by digitization and advanced data analytics, between the skills people have and the skills companies need. And existing skill mismatches are nowhere near as significant as the ones automation and artificial intelligence will bring. Demographic changes will also contribute to the challenge. Life expectancy is rising in many countries, along with the retirement age. According to one estimate, half the people born after 1997 in developed countries could live to 100, meaning they will likely spend many more years working—and learning new skills.

The formal learning that companies now offer is unlikely to be enough to prepare people for this dynamic and confusing future. Instead, people and companies need to embrace a new imperative. It’s not enough to think or talk about “retraining” and “reskilling.” These terms sound episodic, as if they’re something that happens after a layoff or when a process or piece of equipment is installed. “Lifelong learning,” too, is problematic. While it is certainly a beneficial mind-set,1 it tends to appeal primarily to the highly educated and is likely to be much less exciting for those who didn’t like school in the first place.

Instead, employers, employees, educational institutions, and public-sector leaders need to start talking about “lifelong employability”: helping people continually and successfully adapt as the economy evolves. Rather than focusing on retraining and reskilling as ends to themselves, we must reframe these topics as a means to the specific end of remaining employable for as long as one desires to be a part of the workforce. Mid-career assistance, in particular, is a major focal point of such a system, and this is an area, MGI pointed out, of particular weakness. Embracing the idea of lifelong employability will help workers remain relevant and ensure that employers have the flow of skilled workers they need and could even improve retention by exciting employees about their career prospects and potential.

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Jen Coy